Five can’t-miss exhibits at NLBM

The Field of Legends features 10 life-sized, bronzed sculptures of Negro Leagues greats at their positions on a mini baseball diamond.

This is the oldest-known garment from the Negro Leagues, a sweater from the first Negro Leagues World Series won by the Kansas City Monarchs in 1924, is enclosed in a glass case. "ECL" stands for Eastern Colored League.

The Kansas City Star

1 Field of Legends

The centerpiece of the museum is impossible to miss — the Field of Legends that features 10 life-sized, bronzed sculptures of Negro Leagues greats at their positions on a mini baseball diamond.

The 10 players, including pitcher Satchel Paige on the mound, catcher Josh Gibson behind the plate, Martin Dihigo at bat, Buck Leonard at first base and Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston in the outfield, represent 10 of the first group of Negro Leaguers to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

And outside the field, behind a fence, is a statue of the manager of the group, Buck O’Neil, the former skipper of the Kansas City Monarchs, who was not enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame and now sadly appears like he’s looking in from the outside.

Although the Field of Legends is the first thing guests see, it’s the last stop on any tour of the museum after the visitors have seen the exhibits that tell the story of the Negro Leagues.

“We built the entire exhibition around the baseball diamond, and everything flows around the diamond,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the museum. “You earn the right to take the field by learning their story. By the time you witness everything they endured to play baseball in this country, then the very last thing that happens is now you take the field.

“The kids who come in, even the big kids, want to take off running the bases. There’s something about being on a baseball field that you want to run the bases.”

2. Apparel from The Golden Years

The oldest-known garment from the Negro Leagues, a sweater from the first Negro Leagues World Series won by the Kansas City Monarchs in 1924, is enclosed in a glass case.

The dark sweater, which must have belonged to a team trainer or doctor, is emblazoned with the letters “ECL,” representing the Eastern Colored League, a rival league to the Negro National League. The Monarchs beat the Hilldale Daisies of Darby, Pa., in nine games for the title, and photos accompanying the sweater showed packed houses for the contests.

Two Monarchs jerseys from that era, belonging to second baseman Newt Allen and utility player Dink Mothell, are in nearby glass cases in an area highlighting the difficulties Negro Leagues teams encountered because of segregation.

Still, the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s were considered the Negro Leagues’ golden years as black baseball made its biggest impact on the game. Other memorabilia substantiates that the Negro Leagues toured Japan before the major leagues. One display is a game program from the Philadelphia Royal Giants’ 24-game tour of Japan in 1927.

The Royal Giants went 23-0-1 against the Japanese teams, and the large crowds convinced Babe Ruth to take his all-stars to Japan a few years later.

3. Henry Aaron photo

A large black-and-white photo from 1952 of a rail-thin, teenage Henry Aaron preparing to board a train from Mobile, Ala., to Indianapolis, where he would play for the Indianapolis Clowns, highlights an area showcasing players who went from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues.

Aaron was called “Pork Chops” long before he was known as The Hammer, because all he ate on the road were pork chops and French fries.

Behind the Aaron photo is a room filled with photos and newspaper clippings of Negro Leagues players who crossed the color line, including Satchel Paige at the end of his career; Aaron’s 715th home run in Atlanta that broke Babe Ruth’s record; and Frank Robinson’s appointment in Cleveland as the major leagues’ first black manager.

Against a wall is a case containing Major League Baseball cards of dozens of former Negro Leaguers, including Jackie Robinson, who began his career in Kansas City with the Monarchs.

“This is where people started to get that, ‘Ah-ha,’ moment,” Kendrick said. “You get to a name and a face you recognize.”

4. Ty Cobb autographed baseball and more

Cobb, one of the greatest players in baseball history, was a known racist who refused to play against black players in exhibition games as other major leaguers did. But somehow, his signature is on the opposite side of a ball that includes the autographs of former Negro Leaguers Jackie Robinson, Junior Gilliam, Joe Black and Roy Campanella, who would later sign and star with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It’s presumed Cobb signed that ball years before the Negro Leagues players did.

“It’s poetic justice, that Cobb is now surrounded by black baseball players,” Kendrick said. “It’s filled with irony because of Cobb’s reputation for not liking black players, and the Negro Leagues Museum has found a home for Cobb.”

A few steps from the Cobb/Dodgers autographed ball are three huge cases of autographed baseballs. Two cases each contain 200 signed Negro Leagues baseballs. All 400 baseballs were donated by Geddy Lee, the lead singer and bass guitarist from the rock group Rush. Lee is a huge baseball fan and sports memorabilia collector.

Lee, who had visited the museum while stopping in Kansas City, bid on those signed baseballs at auctions for the express purpose of donating them to the museum.

“The great thing about this is you have guys who are Hall of Famers, like Cool Papa Bell … Judy Johnson, Leon Day … to guys who were cup of coffee guys, but they’re all important, because they’re part of the story,” Kendrick said. “You have guys like country singer Charley Pride, who a lot of people don’t know played in the Negro Leagues. You have the three women who played in the Negro Leagues — Toni Stone, Connie Morgan and Mamie Peanut Johnson …”

Another case contains 128 baseballs and two softballs that were signed by celebrities who have visited the museum from the world of politics (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Michelle Obama, Gen. Colin Powell, Al Gore); entertainment (Edward James Olmos, Harry Belafonte); Major League Baseball (George Brett, Tony Oliva, Phil Bradley, Fay Vincent, Buck Showalter); and other sports (Tom Watson, Oscar Robertson, Dick Vermeil, Warren Moon, Doug Williams, Alan Page and Tony Richardson).

“This validates the experience to know that this kind of level of celebrities and dignitaries have been here and walked the same path that you walked (in the museum),” Kendrick said.

5. Hall of Fame lockers

Several rows of lockers contain the uniform shirts, hats and replicas of the Cooperstown Hall of Fame plaques of the 35 Negro Leagues players/officials who are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame based solely on their Negro Leagues careers.

Effa Manley, the lone woman in the group, did not play, but she was a longtime owner of the Newark Eagles, so a dress hat and scarf hang in her locker.

Museum | 5 things not to miss

Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, talks about five things one shouldn't miss when they visit the museum. (Video by Todd Feeback)

Museum | Five things about Buck

The president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Bob Kendrick, talks in-depth about five things related to Buck O'Neil that you don't want to miss when you visit. (Video by Todd Feeback)

Museum | 5 things not to miss

Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, talks about five things one shouldn't miss when they visit the museum. (Video by Todd Feeback)

Museum | Five things about Buck

The president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Bob Kendrick, talks in-depth about five things related to Buck O'Neil that you don't want to miss when you visit. (Video by Todd Feeback)

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